Michael Bolden was the first Cal Poly men’s basketball player circling the court to hand out high fives to fans at the Mott Athletics Center on Saturday night.
It was fitting that the junior wing saw some high school friends waiting to embrace and congratulate him on his best game thus far with the Mustangs, a 69-64 win over visiting UC Riverside.
It was back at Trabuco Hills High where Bolden nearly quit basketball after coming off the bench for the junior varsity team.
He persevered then. He wasn’t recruited at all out of high school but went on to become a two-time all-conference player at Irvine Valley College and signed with the Mustangs this past offseason.
When he went through a string of games where he did not play this season, Bolden was fully prepared to deal with the trial.
“It’s been tough,” Bolden said of the adjustment to the four-year level, “tough times and good times. … You just keep fighting until you see the sun. Darkness can’t last forever.”
Bolden did not appear in eight of the first nine Big West Conference games of the season, appearing to lose his spot in the rotation after logging time in 11 of the first 12 games of the year.
Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero said Bolden rolled his ankle at an inopportune time early in the season, and it hurt his stock as the rotations were getting solidified.
In the past four games, Bolden has worked himself back into favor as injuries have taken their toll.
Senior guard Kyle Odister, in and out of the starting lineup since being diagnosed with a stress fracture late last month, was inactive Saturday after playing limited minutes the previous five games.
That allowed Maliik Love to start in the backcourt with Jamal Johnson. The trio of Johnson, Love and Bolden gave the Mustangs defense a boost in the second half of Thursday’s 67-59 home loss to Cal State Fullerton.
Bolden scored a career-high 13 points Saturday, hitting a game-high four 3-pointers and missing just one from beyond the arc.
He also added three assists and two steals while making just his second start of the season and his first since Dec. 21.
“It’s just perseverance and staying active,” Bolden said, “practicing and putting shots up after practice and working on my game.”
Senior forward Chris Eversley scored a game-high 22 points, including three 3-pointers of his own, and can help Bolden put his emergence in perspective being a former transfer himself.
“It takes you awhile to get adjusted to this level,” Eversley said. “Some players need to develop and get used to the rotation and the coaching style, and I think Michael is doing a great job of that.
“He’s been through lot. Just for him to be able to step up when we need him and being able to step up in the big times and big games like this and knock down shots is huge.”
Having lost six of the past seven coming in, Cal Poly (10-16, 6-7 Big West) needed Saturday’s win to help ensure the Mustangs make the conference tournament next month.
Only the last-place team is left out of the event, and Cal Poly had just two games in the win column on the last-place Highlanders (8-19, 3-10 Big West).
Now, the Mustangs can clinch their spot in the postseason tournament with one victory in the final three regular-season games. Even three losses are unlikely to land them in the cellar, though.
Bolden made the start in place of David Nwaba, who came off the bench to score 13 points of his own, grab four rebounds and block a shot. Brian Bennett had eight points and three rebounds off the bench.
It was a back-and-fourth game all the way until a layup by Bennet broke the seventh tie score and gave Cal Poly a 42-40 lead with 11:28 left in the game.
The Mustangs led the rest of the way, stretching their lead to 11 at the largest, and when
UC Riverside cut it to 63-60 with 51 seconds left, Eversley and Nwaba each hit a pair of free throws to push the advantage back to seven with 33 seconds remaining.
Steven Thornton led the Highlanders with 21 points, including three 3-pointers, Sam Finley added 16 points, and Chris Patton had 14 points and eight rebounds. Taylor Johns blocked a game-high five shots.
Cal Poly plays its next two games on the road, starting with a matchup at UC Davis on Thursday, and the Mustangs return home for the regular-season finale against UC Santa Barbara on March 8.